After experiencing dual traumas—a battle with thyroid cancer and a preventative double mastectomy—Samantha Paige felt like she had lost touch with herself, and that she had become a stranger in her own life. After a long process of reconnecting, she made a big decision that spurred the creation of the Last Cut Project, a multi-media documentary project about the tough choices we make in order to live a life that feels like our own. Below, she tells the story of her “last cut”—explant surgery—and describes how removing her fake breasts made her feel more alive, beautiful, and “herself” than ever.
My journey to the explant surgery, which led to the Last Cut Project, began long before I even got the implants. This chapter started when I was 21 years old and diagnosed with thyroid cancer totally out of the blue. Luckily, it was curable, so I had surgery to remove the tumor and two rounds of radioactive iodine therapy. Following my treatment, I returned to college, but I didn’t really process what had happened—I just kept moving, through undergrad, a Master’s, and a job at a think tank. My twenties were then filled with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks—PTSD-related symptoms that were notably debilitating. I eventually began to experience migraines, too, and was forced to go on disability.
As I continued to avoid dealing with the trauma of my diagnosis, a massive disconnect formed between my physical experience and my mental and emotional experience, which kept pushing me further and further away from myself.
I was told that most women are happiest and feel most “normal” when they get silicone gel breast implants…After a decade of not feeling that way, I drank the Kool-Aid.
Within that period, more health-related news: I tested positive for a BRCA1 mutation [a predictor of breast and ovarian cancer risk] and opted for a preventative double mastectomy surgery after my daughter was born. At that time—10 years ago—the implant piece was presented to me as basically a given. I asked my doctor if we could use my own body fat for reconstruction, but that was not a viable option. Remaining flat was also not presented, nor considered by me at the time. I was told that most women are happiest and feel most “normal” when they get silicone gel breast implants. Since I was still very much in this place of trying to make my life “okay” after a decade of it not feeling that way, I drank the Kool-Aid. I ended up getting the implants, and I got the biggest ones my body could handle.
While the mastectomy itself was a huge moment of empowerment—I felt I had taken a step toward reclaiming my health—this secondary implant process, which required multiple procedures and doctor’s visits over months, was triggering. Being back in the hospital so much surfaced a lot I’d tried to bury. That’s when I finally realized, “Okay, I’ve pushed the trauma from the initial big cancer experience I had at 21 way down into some hidden place within me, and now it’s bubbling up. I have to deal with this, because I don’t want my life to be ruled by this untouched trauma.”
I started doing therapy and pulling all of this stuff apart; however, in terms of the implants, I held on to what I’d been told. I remember for years saying, “I’m so lucky I won’t have to wear a bra even when I’m 90,” or “Look how perky my chest is,” while all these voices of people telling me how fortunate I was circled around me. I didn’t really feel that, but I wasn’t in a place at that point in my life to actually think about it more deeply.
It wasn’t until eight years later that I realized that, while the implants looked great through the societal lens of what a wonderful pair of tits should look like, I didn’t feel that way about them.
How can I live a life that really feels as if I know who I am? How do I create a life that feels like my own?
That revelation occurred after a long process of healing myself, which eventually led to a whole different way of approaching my life. The way I like to frame it is that the explant surgery really was very far down the line in this “Last Cut” process—a process that began when I started to ask myself, “How can I live a life that really feels as if I know who I am? How do I create a life that feels like my own?”
During that time, I worked a lot with one of my dear friends, Anne Van de Water, who is a lifestyle and wellness coach. She helped me realize we have to learn to take care of ourselves on a very foundational level before we can make any big decisions—and to be prepared for the ones we cannot control. That was really critical work for me and I began to question certain aspects of my life. What am I feeding myself? How much am I sleeping? How much stress do I allow into my life? Am I doing things that I love doing or am I doing things because society tells me that’s what’s right?
As a result, I changed the way I was eating. I started to manage stress differently. I went off the medications I had been taking for migraines and for mental health (which I would not recommend anyone doing on their own—it was very much in conjunction with my doctors). I sadly saw some relationships end. I welcomed in other relationships that were more nourishing and that supported how I wanted to be. I learned how to say “no,” which was a huge one. I came to look at my yeses and my nos as some of the greatest tools I have for my wellness, because through them, I have the ability to create healthy boundaries in any realm.
On New Year’s Eve, moving into 2016, I felt really great about all the work I’d done to create a life I really loved. I chose a word for 2016: embodiment. Now, I thought, is the time to own all this that I’d created in my life.
Two days later, a friend of mine came over and told me she was getting her silicone implants taken out because she’d been doing research and decided they were making her sick.* She knew of some of the lingering health issues I was still dealing with, chronic things, and she gave me a long list of books and articles to read. I knew that night that my implants needed to come out. I’d been disconnected from who I was and how I felt in my body for years. I just hadn’t been able to see it until that moment.
Once [the implants] were off my chest, I could breathe—I just felt different and lighter. It felt as if I had my body back, and I felt more beautiful and more connected to myself than I had in years.
Going into the explant surgery, I had such clarity, which was an incredible feeling. This isn’t to say there weren’t moments where I thought, “Oh gosh, I’m single and I’m deciding to be flat.” But overall, I had created an environment in my life at that point wherein I knew how to gauge when a decision was right for me or not. Even waiting in the pre-op, I felt so different than I had before previous surgeries because I had changed my life so dramatically.
Once those were off my chest, I could breathe—I just felt different and lighter. It felt as if I had my body back, and I felt more beautiful and more connected to myself than I had in years. But I don’t think it was a decision of “boobs or no boobs” that created that connection and the clarity. It came from being able to navigate through the decisions with such confidence in myself, to know myself and to trust my intuition, to ask the right questions on my own behalf, to surround myself with the right people who could help me follow through on what I believe in, and to trust in the process of making a big decision, making a “last cut,” that leads to embodiment and freedom. So I think my chest and the explant became this incredible metaphor for the Last Cut Project.
Yes, I do feel more connected in my body and sexier than before. We’re told so many things by society about what defines beauty and what defines femininity. The more that we can deconstruct these labels, the more everyone can show up to just be who they are. Going back to that moment when I was told that if I got implants I would feel more “normal” or “more feminine,” I can see now that those are just definitions that make other people comfortable. I spent eight years not feeling comfortable in my body when I had these “perfect” breasts. Now, I feel more connected.
The decisions that I’ve made make me feel as though I’m living in the world in a way that’s a reflection of who I am on the inside. And that feels feminine, that feels beautiful.
As told to Erin Bunch
*Editor’s note: In 1992, silicone gel-filled breast implants were ordered off the market by the FDA when they were linked to increases in autoimmune disease and even cancer; however, the FDA eventually found there wasn’t enough proof of danger and five types of silicone gel breast implants are currently approved with safety caveats. Some continued research does point to a potential (but far from definitive) connection between this type of implant and autoimmune disease, but the FDA has not changed its position since approving two silicone gel-filled implants in 2006.
Originally published on August 14, 2018.
Samatha Paige and activist Sonya Renee Taylor would have a lot to talk about; here, Taylor’s story of how a sexy selfie sparked a political movement she dubs “radical self-love.” Plus, find out why Ashley Graham believes self-love is more than a trend.
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